The Government should offer national scholarships if it wants universities to continue to offer less popular subjects such as foreign languages and physics, according to a leading vice-chancellor.
Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University, told the Association of University Administrators conference in Loughborough last week that an emerging market in higher education driven by differential tuition fees could have a distorting effect, putting people off already unpopular and, arguably harder, subjects in the sciences and languages.
Although universities needed to be more market driven, he warned that they should do this "in a way that is true to their identity and that respects the sector".
And Sir David, who chairs Universities UK's longer term strategy group, warned that the Government must be willing to step in where the market fails.
"If minority subjects are to survive at some universities, the Government should start offering scholarships to students," he said.
"A lot of talk and policy about the market is not based on the evidence.
The Government has not got under the skin of how subtle and complex a sector it is."
Sir David said that universities should review the mix of subjects they offered in preparation for the market, but advised gentle transition rather than radical upheaval.
University leaders had to find their "zone of freedom of action" to become world class in whatever they did, he told the conference.
But he warned against aggressive and destructive competition that might tempt universities to do down competitors.
"The seeds of destruction are there if universities' policies involve getting the Government to stop others from doing something," he said. He added that all universities had a duty to help safeguard the sector because, he said, "at some stage each institution will need the others".
Association of University Administrators: www.aua.ac.uk